Parents with low empathy typically show little or no regret, remorse or guilt when they behave in ways that hurt and harm their children and children of such parents are therefore at particularly high risk of experiencing abuse.
At the extreme end of the scale, those with very low empathy are termed by psychologists as sociopaths or as suffering from anti-social personality disorder (however, this does not mean they will necessarily have been diagnosed or have broken the law – many such individuals can function well on a superficial level, seem charming on the surface and have cultivated a public persona that very effectively disguises their disorder; they may even strike the outside world as ‘model citizens’).
Other personality traits (on top of lack of feelings of guilt and superficial charm referred to above) of the sociopath include the following:
- an inability to form long-lasting relationships
- superficial emotions
- lack of awareness/concern regarding the harmful effects of their behavior on others
- poor ability to make long-term plans
- experiences abnormally low levels of anxiety (so can be good at jobs that require a strong nerve such as surgery)
People with very low empathy, such as sociopaths, tend not to be easy to change ; they are also, as implied above, often very hard to detect – this makes them all the more potentially dangerous.
POSSIBLE BRAIN DIFFERENCES :
One of the possible reasons why sociopaths may find it difficult to change is that research suggests they may be suffering from brain abnormalities (specifically, in the region of the brain responsible for giving rise to feelings of empathy for others, as, indeed, one may expect). However, much more research still needs to be conducted before a full picture can be built up of both biological and environmental causes (and, indeed, of how these two categories of causes interact, of course).
LATEST RESEARCH :
It is worth noting, however, that (at the time of writing), the latest research suggests that sociopaths may not so much lack empathy as have an abnormal ability to suppress it (Keysers et al. 2012).
HOW THE SOCIOPATH CAN BECOME AGGRESSIVE TOWARDS THE EMPATH :
First, an EMPATH can be defined as a particularly sensitive and perceptive individual who is often the first to intuit that there is something ‘wrong’ with the sociopath. Such individuals can represent a threat to the sociopath as they have the potential to expose him/her (the sociopath) and challenge his/her manipulative behavior.
Frequently, due to this threat, the sociopath turns on/ becomes aggressive towards / attacks / tries to discredit the empath in an attempt to stop him/her (the empath) exposing him/her (the sociopath) and speaking the truth about his/her (the sociopath’s) behavior.
HOW THE SOCIOPATH ENLISTS THE SUPPORT OF THE APATH :
In order to try to defeat, or, even, psychologically destroy the empath, the sociopath will often enlist the support of the apath (or the support of several apaths).
An apath is someone who lacks the judgment or insight to perceive the sociopath’s malevolent manipulative behavior, or someone who is too apathetic and morally cowardly to care about it or do anything about it. If, on top of this, the apath bears the empath a grudge, the perverse collusion between the sociopath and apath may prove particularly devastating.
The psychological theorists, McGregor and McGregor, who originally formulated the above theory, termed this dynamic the sociopath-empath-apath triad. By way of illustration, the concept could apply to a family in the following manner :
- mother = sociopath
- youngest son = empath
- oldest son = apath
- father = apath
In the above example, there are two apaths; however, in other situations there may be just one or three or more.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).